Birthday Reviews: Davis, Keyes, Slonczewski, Varley

This week’s birthday celebrations provide us with satires on how to get science into society and how to get tuberculosis into the UN, as well as giving us tickets to Mercury (where we’ll learn that the future may not see us as morally pure as we see ourselves at this time) and to some progress reports on one man’s experience with intelligence enhancement (which will stick with us for all time).

Chan Davis (1926-08-12)

“Adrift on the Policy Level” (Star Science Fiction Stories No. 5, 1959)

Minimally adapted from a 2019-10-21 review of The Expert Dreamers, edited by Frederik Pohl.

Though in the editor Pohl’s frequently occupied bailiwick of satire, “Adrift on the Policy Level” by Chandler Davis didn’t initially grab me or even ultimately overwhelm me, but did become more clearly pointed and funny as it progressed through its Kafka Americana narrative of a scientist recruiting a worldly brother-in-law to aid him in his quest to win the favor of The Powers That Be by playing the required social, bureaucratic, and self-deluding games that the suitor only dimly comprehends. The twice-twisted conclusion is effective.

Daniel Keyes (1927-08-09–2014-06-15)

“Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959)

Through the progress reports Charlie Gordon writes, we learn that he is a 37-year-old man with an I.Q. of 68 who works as a janitor at Donnegan’s Plastic Box Company and takes night classes with Miss Kinnian because he wants desperately to be smarter. This has led to his chance to be selected by Doctors Nemur and Strauss to be the first human to undergo a brain operation to triple his intelligence, as has been done in mice such as Algernon, who beats Charlie in maze races several times. We then follow the arc of Charlie’s selection and the results of his surgery.

This story is an example of why the ancient Greeks conceived of Muses: once in a great while, everything just seems to fall into place and an author is blessed with a perfect story. This tale is splendidly simple in concept and structure and complex in detail. It’s simultaneously the purest of science fiction and deeply humanist. Charlie Gordon is the ultimate naive narrator who innocently conveys heart-wrenching pathos and painful double visions but, through his innocence, we get some experienced and hard edged-perceptions as the god-like Doctors become mortal, the untouchable woman becomes attractive, the businessman is saved ten thousand dollars a year which he repays with twenty-five dollars, and perhaps every reader is made complicit through punctuation (however gently we laugh). The main experience he conveys is that of being expelled from the Purgatory of Eden into both heaven and hell in deeply emotional terms without ever descending into mawkishness. Perhaps the saddest thing about the story is that it points out that humans can be unhappy across the spectrum of intelligence, though the specific scene of the belated visit to class tears me up every time. I don’t seek the sentimental in fiction and it doesn’t usually work very well on me but this story touches me as I’m pretty sure it’s touched most everyone who has read it. If you haven’t, go do so! If you have, it’s probably time to read it again! [1]

Joan Slonczewski (1956-08-14)

“Tuberculosis Bacteria Join UN” (Nature, June 29, 2000)

First and foremost, this is clever short-short with the fascinating idea of “building computational macromolecules into the genomes of pathogens known for their ability to infiltrate the human system” to get around the problem of nanobot failures when they are introduced into the human body for medical purposes. In short, you end up with cyborg AI bacteria. This is delivered in the form of a press release declaring that this nation of beings has been admitted to the UN. Secondarily, today’s self-righteous might find something in it to consider.

John Varley (1947-08-09)

“Retrograde Summer” (F&SF, February 1975)

A Mercurian meets his loonie (that’s Lunarian!) clone/sibling, shows her the ropes, and finally learns the dark secret of his family. The exposition of the setting is as smooth as a magician’s trick and that setting, with people in amazing space suits swim/sliding in/on mercury on Mercury and then being trapped in a cave-in from the frequent Mercurian tremors is enthralling and unforgettable. Incidentally, this was talking about “gender-fluidity” before most of the people who say they have nothing to learn or gain from old, evil SF were born and it points out that one person’s moral righteousness is another’s moral perversion and that these categories are also fluid.


[1] I often think of this as one of the best stories of all-time and will often say, “Well, Story X is good, but it’s no “Flowers for Algernon.” Lately, I’d been wondering if I was looking at the story through rose-colored glasses and it wasn’t as good as all that. So it was definitely time for me to re-read, to remind myself that it is as good as all that. My only criticism is that, while I wouldn’t really change a word of what’s written in the progress reports, I would have them occur over a slightly longer span of time. It still needs to happen in a compressed time frame but, even with a science-fictional operation, a lot of the top of the arc happens awfully fast.

Review: The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy

The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy
Hardcover: Del Rey, 0-345-40856-X, $24.95, 325pp, August 2000

This is a very strange book, provoking two opposed reactions.

Once upon a time (July 1999, to be exact), “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” appeared as a novella. It was later lowercased and became “book one” of this novel. Now speaking structurally rather than historically, a second novella, “twice upon a star imperiled,” was added to be “book two” and a portion as long as those two combined, “thrice upon a schemer’s plotting” (which is either a very long novella or a short novel) was added to be “book three.” As far as I can tell, neither of these other parts were published separately, yet both repeat things in a way that would make sense for self-sufficient works but is unnecessary in a novel.

The part I mostly like is the physics superscience background. [1] In this book, in the not-too-distant future, people like Bruno de Towaji can manipulate things at the quantum level, crush things into micro-blackholes, create vacuum so empty of all things as to make ordinary vacuum a comparatively impenetrable sludge (with interesting effects on “light speed”) and even develop “ertial” devices (which are obviously shielded from inertia), not to mention “fax” things (including people, who may or may not later be merged completely or have various mental snapshots of theirs added to others). In this milieu, the terraforming of Venus with “wellstone flakes” (which cause “pseudochemical” atmospheric transformations) is child’s play, albeit rich child’s play. And, speaking of children, the fax technology also has an “immorbidity” filter which makes everyone effectively immortal and only at the beginnings of their lives as long as they don’t suffer from accidents. Even if they do, they still have fax backup copies. That is, if a madman doesn’t kill them all. The funny thing about this is that, for the longest time, this all seems rather plausible even if the protagonist is living in the Kuiper Belt on a world of his design which is 636 meters in diameter and made habitable (as long as you don’t get more than a few feet up) by its own artificial mini-star. Gosh! Wow! Sensawunda!

A part I mostly don’t like is the societal background in which humanity has decided to have itself a monarchy because, as is repeated in variant forms several times throughout the book, “The human brain was said to be wired for monarchy, for hierarchy, for the elevation and admiration of single individuals, and now the truth of this hit Bruno like a heavy gilded pillow.” (My reaction to that is, “Pfft. Show me the scientific proof.” And, if somehow there is any that is credible, my reaction to that is, “We’re also ‘wired’ to fling poo like our monkey cousins but we’ve mostly gotten over it.) This (at least I assume it’s this or something like it) leads to a part I also don’t like though it’s well done, and that’s the style, which is a combination of magic fairy tale tone and monarchical affectation but which also manages to be frequently funny which pays well until the end, when it becomes distancing.

Between all the tech, the monarchy and its underpinnings, and the style, I kept thinking of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I didn’t like, either. At least until the end, when I felt like Graham Chapman’s Colonel should come out and say, “Stop! You had a nice bit there but it’s got quite silly!” Then it started to add a bit of Dungeons and Dragons action and, though I don’t think it had anything directly related, some feel of both Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the bad part of Campbell’s Invaders from the Infinite.

In the first book, Bruno is called from his home in the sky to help with a problem. The Queen has had her tech wizard and lover (or her other tech wizard and lover, that is) build a Collapsiter Ring around the sun to provide a sort of high-speed beltway around the system: it’s longer, but you go faster. Unfortunately, it’s become unstable (a nod to Niven’s Ringworld?) and is due to crash into the sun soon which, with its being sort of a bunch of black holes, would destroy the sun. After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the second book, Bruno is called back once again, as the Collapsiter is falling into the sun again (this time due to the sabotage of muon contamination undoing the work of book one). After much philosophy, characterization, and witty repartee, Bruno has an epiphany. In the third book, the ring is actually destroyed by the saboteur and cleaning up that mess requires several epiphanies and much more.

Basically, the science fictional concepts are wonderful. The style is artful. The situations are good, as well, though the resolutions are poor. It’s all vivid and lively. The characters are interesting. The crown lies heavy on the Queen’s head, Bruno has the weight of the solar system on his somewhat post-existential shoulders and feels like a mere man (and often an inept one) inside, the villain is a thoroughly black-hatted caricature but has some easily recognizable human motivations as the basis for the broad strokes of madness. All this is reason enough to like it as others have and will, but I just didn’t. It felt like some sort of overly-stylized neo-Victorian morality play. Once, early in the book, Bruno is dolled-up by some courtiers and observes himself, thinking his hat was the sort that might have an ostrich feather protruding from it. And this book is wearing just such a hat, when it could have simply worn its propeller-beanie.


[1] There is so much background that there are four appendixes of (in my edition) 31 of the book’s 318 pages, with the first, second, and fourth appendix all being “in character.” The first and fourth include many extracts from, or expansions of, the main narrative, mostly on the tech; the second is a technical glossary; the third is a technical note (the one that’s out of character with equations and references to scientific papers).

Birthday Reviews: Harrison, Murphy, Reynolds

Harry Harrison (1925-03-12–2012-08-15)

“Not Me, Not Amos Cabot!” (Science Fantasy #68, 1964)

Harry Harrison is probably best known for his justly beloved comic “Stainless Steel Rat” tales (or his “Bill the Galactic Hero” series, though I’m much more fond of his space opera parody, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers). Or perhaps his serious “Deathworld,” “Planet of the Damned,” or “Eden” books. Or Make Room! Make Room! (which inspired the movie Soylent Green). Or numerous other longer works. Or his numerous short stories. Here is a strange one in that it isn’t science fiction or fantasy though it feels like it almost must be one or the other. Either way, it’s an amusing, dark, efficient tale.

Amos Cabot is eighty-two years old. One day, he receives a magazine in the mail which is all about death. Furious that someone’s counting on him to die, he storms down to the magazine’s headquarters to find out what’s going on. From the circulation director, he learns that it is underwritten by its advertisers and is sent out based on actuarial tables from insurance companies.

“I ain’t going to die in two years, not me! Not Amos Cabot!”

“That is entirely up to you, sir. My position here is just a routine one. Your subscription has been entered and will be canceled only when a copy is returned with the imprint ADDRESSEE DECEASED.”

“I’m not going to die!”

“That might possibly happen, though I can’t recall any cases offhand. But since it is a two-year subscription I imagine it will expire automatically at the end of the second year. If it is not canceled beforehand. Yes, that’s what would happen.

After discarding the notion of marking it with “deceased” himself because he doesn’t want them to think they were right, Cabot devotes everything to outlasting the prognostication and matters move quickly to their ironic conclusion.

Pat Murphy (1955-03-09) & Paul Doherty

“Cold Comfort” (Bridging Infinity, 2016)

Pat Murphy is probably best known for her fantasy novel, The Falling Woman, as well as her excellent stories, many of which are science fiction, even hard SF like this one. (This is revised from a review I did on another website.)

A rogue scientist bounces around in the Great White (but Greening) North with a notion to create “methane sequestering mats” out of carbon tubes filled with bacteria capable of metabolizing methane. Since that is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and great quantities of it are released when the so-called permafrost thaws, this could be very useful. However, no one listens to the scientist’s proposal until she engages in some relatively mild, discreet ecoterrorism by blowing up a remote frozen lake to make people realize the seriousness of the permafrost and methane situation. With key people not knowing she’s responsible, things begin to break her way and she sets about trying to save the world via crowdfunding, muskoxen, robots, and less likely things. Another problem arises when the political climate of the U. S. changes and has disastrous effects on the ecological climate (not that that could ever happen here). Her research station is shut down and she’s slated to be arrested for working with foreigners to try to save the world. Ever resourceful, she hides out until its safe again. The story picks up 30 years later and provides our cold comfort.

There have been too many recent examples of cli-fi but this is a good one. While the story lacks dramatic tension regarding the skillful protagonist, it has plenty of tension regarding the world’s situation; while it is bitter and cynical in part, it isn’t simply misanthropic; and while I don’t quite like the ending, I’m not supposed to. The bulk of the tale is packed with nifty ideas, details, ramifications and interrelations, and has an actual problem-solving bent.

Alastair Reynolds (1966-03-13)

“Merlin’s Gun” (Asimov’s, May 2000)

Alastair Reynolds tends to write doorstops of novels only marginally smaller than Peter F. Hamilton’s bugcrushers and many of them and his excellent stories are set in the “Revelation Space” universe. Here’s something a little different.

Sora is a member of the Cohort, which has been at war for 23,000 years. (We’re told that the Cohort has been fighting the Huskers “ever since those ruthless alien cyborgs had emerged from ancient Dyson spheres near the Galactic Core.”) For her poor marksmanship, she’s on punishment detail, which saves her life when the rest of her ship is destroyed, killing everyone she knows. Her ship had recently done a slingshot around a neutron star but some of the Huskers survived their attempt to duplicate the maneuver and caught her ship in a lonely region of space. Due to her “familiar” (an assertively helpful symbiotic AI), she doesn’t commit suicide in grief but is put into suspension in her escape pod. She wakes to see cosmic ray abrasions clouding the port and finds it’s 3,000 years later. Her familiar has awakened her because a ship has entered the system. It turns out to be a Cohort ship from 7,000 years before Sora’s time. Since the Cohort has actually been degenerating in many ways over the course of the war, this is actually a more advanced ship than hers. When she allows herself to be rescued, she finds that it is piloted by Merlin, a figure of her mythology. The myth says that he’s on a “quest” to find a “gun” which will help the Cohort end the war. This is mostly true, but turns out to be much more complicated. She joins his quest, which takes them to an especially interesting solar system where they encounter automated defenses, Huskers lying in wait under the frozen surface of a moon, and much more. As violent and large-scale as things had been, it all turns out to be minor prologue to the grand finale. (Just as a hint, Merlin’s gun fires black hole bullets and that’s not even the most amazing thing about it.)

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that, later in the story, even the Cohort-Husker war shrinks, as we learn that the gun comes from a war 40-45,000 years before, shortly after the Waymakers (those who had created the interstellar network of altered regions which allow for faster-than-light travel) disappeared and that this, itself, is merely the middle part of galactic history. (These time scales aren’t as staggering as they sound since social evolution has slowed as many people spend centuries or millennia racing through space and not living second after second through normal time, but it’s still pretty wild.) And for those who want human stories, Sora is a real person who has suffered and has decisions to make and even Merlin turns out to be much more man than myth, however much he’s gone through (which is more than it seems at first). It’s stories like this that are why I love both science fiction and short fiction: big ideas on a vast canvas of time and space, told efficiently with zest and zip (all this is done in a 34-page novelette) [1]. “Goshwowsensawunda!”


[1] This is actually part of a series of stories and is even the third one of four in internal chronology, but it was the first-written, is self-sufficient, and, if memory serves, is my favorite of the three I’ve read.